Welcome to the new and improved Senate
Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson.
Our Senate is evolving admirably, though purists are tearing at their hair.
The status of the Liberal government’s budget was briefly in doubt this week, thanks to a standoff between the lower and upper houses, as the Commons and Senate are sometimes called.
The Senate sent the budget back to the House, earlier this week, with recommended revisions. The House rejected the revisions, told the Senate it had no power to amend the budget, and then voted unanimously to take the rest of the summer off.
Chagrined, senators threatened to once again reject the budget. But on Thursday morning they deferred to the will of the House, though they sent a sharp note asserting the Senate’s power “to amend legislation, whatever its nature or source.”
Justin Trudeau “has created this new Senate, and this new Senate is quite feisty,” explained Senator Jim Munson. Yes, he did, and, yes, it is, and Mr. Munson is a good example of why this new arrangement is working so well.
The Ontario senator spent decades as a reporter for CTV, before being let go in 2001 by the management of the day. Jean Chrétien, who was fond of Mr. Munson, hired him as a press secretary. In December, 2003, two days before Mr. Chrétien left office, he appointed Mr. Munson to the Senate.
The flip side of Mr. Munson’s appointment was that of Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a former nurse who served as Stephen Harper’s press secretary before the prime minister sent her to her reward in 2008. Both have served ably; both got to where they are through party loyalty.
Compare their qualifications to those of Murray Sinclair, a former judge who chaired the inquiry into the abuses at residential schools; or Frances Lankin, the former Ontario NDP cabinet minister who spent a decade as CEO of United Way Toronto; or André Pratte, the former editor-in-chief of La Presse, who is one of the leading federalist voices in Quebec.
These are just three of the senators whom Mr. Trudeau has appointed to the Senate based on their contribution to the life of our country, rather than because they were party loyalists. They sit as independents, and act like it. They and other like-minded senators have improved more than one piece of legislation by sending it back to the House with recommended revisions.
Sometimes the House has accepted their recommendations, sometimes it hasn’t. In all cases, the Senate has deferred to the final will of the Commons, as it did, ultimately, with the budget.
Nonetheless, this has led to no end of agonizing by constitutional experts, who fear an effective but unelected Senate will undermine our democracy. Bosh.
Like it or not, the Senate exists. Like it or not, it cannot be reformed or abolished, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling requiring provincial unanimity. Given these two facts, an effective Senate is preferable to the dysfunctional gaggle of patronage appointments that gave us Raymond Lavigne (the former senator who was jailed for fraud), Mike Duffy (who was acquitted on criminal charges in the Senate expenses affair, and who still sits as a senator) and Don Meredith (who was forced to resign for sexual misbehaviour) – to name just three of the more recent embarrassments.
Critics have long argued that Canadian prime ministers wield virtually unfettered power, if they head a majority government. The checks and balances of the American congressional system aren’t available. Unlike some other Westminster-based democracies, Canadian members of Parliament have been so cowed into submission by the party whips they no longer have any real autonomy. Premiers sometimes act as a brake, but only in extreme cases that have at times put the very survival of the federation at risk.
We should think of this new, improved Senate as a jury, another institution of our democracy that is not elected, but that has, for centuries, responsibly wielded enormous power.
The House will always be supreme, because it is elected; the Senate will always defer in the end. But if 105 good-men-and-women-and-true are able to improve the quality of legislation coming out of our Parliament through careful deliberation and impartial advice, then we should welcome that. No available alternative is preferable.
And maybe this will teach the members of the Commons not to rush off to their summer vacations until the Senate has had its final say.